Bondage

For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond

an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, April 17, 2008– March 1, 2009.

Devil May Care

by Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming
Doubleday, 544 pp., $24.95

1.

Fifty years ago, a fictional spy who had gradually become famous suddenly became notorious. Dr. No was the sixth of the books that had been appearing since 1953 when Ian Fleming, a restless, cynical English newspaperman, published Casino Royale, and with the words “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning,” James Bond first appeared. Fewer than five thousand copies were initially printed, but sales rose with each book, Bond entered the national consciousness, and his adventures began to travel, notably to America. Then in 1958 academic and journalistic critics began to look hard at this phenomenon, and did not like what they saw.

First came Bernard Bergonzi, with “The Case of Mr Fleming.” Apart from finding the sex distasteful—male brutality and female submission, or what Bond himself called “the sweet tang of rape”—he lamented Fleming’s “vulgarity and display” and his love of luxury goods. This was true enough, as anyone knows who has read the books, or who visits the fascinating show about Fleming and Bond at the Imperial War Museum in London on which For Your Eyes Only, Ben Macintyre’s enjoyable new book of the same name, is based. Fleming pioneered brand-name-dropping, and we can see a letter he received from Floris of Jermyn Street, enclosing a bottle of that elegant emporium’s lime essence in return for a puff in Dr. No.

Then the Manchester Guardian (as it still just was) editorially deplored the decline in taste expressed by the “advertising agency world” of the books, which echoed Bergonzi unkindly contrasting Bond with “the perfectly self-assured gentlemanly life” of his obvious predecessors, the Clubland Heroes. That was the title of Richard Usborne’s book, published in the same year as Casino Royale, about the novels of John Buchan, Dornford Yates, and “Sapper,” and those earlier heroes would not, Bergonzi sniffed, have tolerated club servants talking like something out of a New Yorker ad (“If I may suggest, Sir, the Dom Perignon ’46”). Fleming responded genially to the Guardian with “a squeak from the butterfly before any more big wheels roll down on it,” but he was dismayed by a more ferocious assault, from Paul Johnson in the New Statesman. Under a headline which almost entered the language, “Sex, Snobbery and Sadism,” Johnson denounced Dr. No as “without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read,” combining schoolboy sex fantasies with suburban “snob-cravings.”

Not that these fusillades did much material damage. Half a dozen more books were to come before Fleming died in 1964, and there was a handy endorsement when John Kennedy revealed his enthusiasm for 007. Author and president met, even discussing harebrained schemes for disposing of Dr. Castro rather than Dr. No (but is it really true that Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were both reading Bond books the night before the assassination in Dallas?). Then Bond went through the financial stratosphere when the film adaptations began in 1962, since when there have been—well, Simon Winder, in The…


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